Walter Hickey ’12 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Monday as part of a team at Insider that used comics to report on the plight of the Uyghur community in China.
Hickey and colleagues Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col and Josh Adams received the Pulitzer in the category of illustrated reporting and commentary, which was in its first year of replacing editorial cartooning.
The Pulitzer Prize is regarded as the highest national honor in journalism, literary works and musical composition. Awarded yearly, the prizes were established in 1917 from funds endowed by journalist and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer.
This year’s Pulitzer marks the first for Insider and recognized the online publication for “using graphic reportage and the comics medium to tell a powerful yet intimate story of the Chinese oppression of the Uyghurs, making the issue accessible to a wider public,” according to the Pulitzer committee.
The illustrated story “How I escaped a Chinese internment camp” is based on interviews with Zumrat Duwat, who was arrested and sent to a detention facility for Uyghur women where she said she endured brutal living conditions and beatings, according to Insider. Eventually, Duwat left the camp and China to live in the United States.
“I was incredibly surprised; I had no inkling this was going to go this way,” Hickey said. “I’m really grateful the story we wrote and drew and illustrated resonated. We were really, really proud of it. I’m just so happy that it got the recognition and Zumrat Duwat’s story got the attention that it deserves.”
Hickey is senior editor for data at Insider. He was previously an intern and then a full-time reporter for the site before working as chief culture writer at FiveThirtyEight. He returned to Insider in 2018 and also writes Numlock News, a daily morning newsletter.
As news of this year’s Pulitzer winners made headlines around the country Tuesday, Hickey was taking it all in.
“It’s so incredible to be honored,” Hickey said. “You always want to make good work and it’s always the top goal. And this type of recognition is an incredible honor, that we got a chance to get good work recognized.”
Insider’s entire team was completely thrilled to receive its first Pulitzer, he added.
“We took a risk doing the type of storytelling we hadn’t done before and others hadn’t done before,” Hickey said.
Visual storytelling that is a cross between comic book and graphic novel is a new medium currently making its way into mainstream news reporting, Hickey explained.
“The thing we’re really happy about is that we haven’t really seen a lot of this type of journalism before, using the medium of comics to report on stories and tell stories,” Hickey said.
The circumstances of Duwat’s story – the fact that she was detained in an internment camp – necessitated a visual medium other than photography, Hickey explained.
“We felt this story could only be told through this medium,” he said. “The category was changed from the editorial cartooning category, which broadened the scope of what was sought after.”
For those nominated, it was meaningful to be valued for doing journalism that they otherwise could not do, according to Hickey.
“On a personal level, I’m just really thrilled that this medium and this manner of storytelling got this type of recognition,” Hickey said. “I hope that means we’re going to be seeing a whole lot more of that.”
Hickey served as journalist and editor for the story, working alongside Del Col to interview Duwat for hours. Their work was detail oriented as they attempted to physically represent her experience by using fact checking and research to see how best to convey the images that lacked photography.
“We hoped to render from her memory as directly and unequivocally as possible,” Hickey said. “My title on it was editor. I carried out interviews and made sure the incredible art that we got from the team stood up to journalistic standards and what we really hoped to replicate here.”
Hickey majored in applied mathematics at W&M and was a staffer at The Flat Hat student newspaper, both of which he said were integral to his current work.
“I do attribute a lot of this to William & Mary,” Hickey said. “I was a math major in college and did The Flat Hat on the side. The fun thing was it really enabled me to blend those interests. In my career as a data journalist, I’ve been served by that sort of omnivorous attitude that it allowed me to develop.”
Previous W&M alumni winners of the Pulitzer Prize have included Dalton Bennett, Forrest Gander, Serge Kovaleski, Joseph Ellis, Lewis Puller and Edwin Roberts.
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist